Are the Holidays Really Happy?

Are Holidays Really Happy?

Gathering for family dinners, decking the halls, lighting of the menorah, and exchanging gifts, all traditions and cherished holiday memories for most families. But for someone struggling with a dementia, memories are hard to come by, the hustle and bustle is daunting, and festivities which were once so cherished, are now a recipe for disaster.

For families with an elder parent or loved one suffering with a dementia, the holidays can present a litany of challenges. This time of year can be extremely stressful for an individual with dementia. The sensory overload caused by multiple conversations, the excitement of young children, the crowds and parade of faces that are no longer familiar are so very overwhelming and anxiety provoking.

This reminds me of the year I brought “Maria” to our home for Thanksgiving dinner. I couldn’t bear the idea of her spending Thanksgiving alone. Besides, I had spent a lot of time with Maria, I was familiar with her dementia, her behaviors and her likes and dislikes, or so I thought.

Early Thanksgiving morning I drove to Jersey to pick up Maria and one of her elder neighbors and make the one hour drive back to our home in Pennsylvania. First mistake, taking someone with a dementia on a long drive, through very unfamiliar territory. Maria asked no less than a few dozen times where we were headed. Second mistake, expecting that she would have a lovely time in a room of 30-some “strangers”. We all know the saying “no good deed goes unpunished”. I was devastated as I watched Maria become agitated and then withdrawn. She paced, she cursed and eventually in her depression went out to sit alone on the porch.

While I was able to calm and redirect Maria, and she did seem to enjoy her meal, it was clear she was frightened in her unfamiliar surroundings. This situation can be stressful and overwhelming for anyone. But for the person with dementia, their ability to handle the stimulation and change to their norm can be overwhelming. Their capacity to handle this overload is greatly diminished, causing frustration, confusion, anxiety and anger. We need to realize and accept that it’s not about how we feel, but more so, how our loved one with dementia feels in a noisy room of “strangers”?

Anyone of the many customs associated with a holiday, the decorations, a Christmas tree, beautifully wrapped gifts or twinkling lights, can trigger unwanted behaviors. While we see these as festive traditions, someone with a dementia can no longer understand what they are seeing. Why is there a tree in the house? What are all these twinkling lights? And wrapped gifts, if you don’t want those presents opened before the holiday; don’t place them in plain sight for they will most likely be unwrapped.

A little more food for thought – you’re the guest, you and other family and friends gather to eat, drink and be merry, and then off you go the comfort of your quiet home. But the family caregiver is now left not only with the cleanup, but dealing with the behaviors their loved one is experiencing in the aftermath of the festivities. It doesn’t have to be that stressful; we can support the family caregiver and ease the caregiver’s load by helping to prepare for the holidays. Offer to shop, wrap, cook, or clean. What we might consider a mundane task can prove to be monumentally helpful to the family caregiver.

Remember too that in the early stages of dementia it’s important to involve your loved one. Often the individual is aware of their cognitive limitations but still able to participate in many of the festivities. That being said, make sure what you’re asking the individual to do, can be done safely. You certainly don’t want to ask a dementia patient who has issues with balance and depth perception to stand on a step stool to hang decorations. But you can have them pick out and hand you the decorations. Prepare favorite holiday recipes together, decorate for the season, or wrap gifts. While some of these tasks may seem insignificant to you, they bring joy and purpose to the individual suffering with dementia.

But most importantly, recognize the signs and be aware of the triggers that cause your loved one to act out. Be prepared to change your plans on a moment’s notice. Let family and friends know that you are looking forward to sharing the holidays together, but you may need to alter your plans.

Below are tips from the Canadian Alzheimer’s Society that will help ensuring the holidays are happy!

Caring for someone at home:

Plan ahead and have realistic expectations.

Organize a series of small events instead of a day-long celebration.

Plan festivities around a time of day that’s best for the person with dementia.

Host family gatherings in a familiar place and limit to small groups.

Avoid decorations that look like candy, fruit or other food.

Decorate your home in intervals so it’s less jarring for the person with dementia.

Have a quiet area where the person can retreat if gatherings become too hectic.

For a long-term care resident:

Talk to staff in advance; they usually know best what residents can handle.

Make celebrations simple; it’s your presence that counts.

Bring a favorite book or piece of music; read and sing together.

Reminisce about past holidays or events to help trigger happy memories.

Don’t prolong your visit if the person seems tired or distressed.

If you’re a caregiver:

Pace yourself and set aside some quiet time during the holidays.

Ask a friend or neighbor to help you with shopping or cooking a meal.

Assign children specific tasks and tell them the difference their help makes.

Set realistic goals; ask yourself how urgent the task is.

Join a support group.

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About Wendy Pester

With over 20 years of experience in the healthcare industry, I was fortunate to find my niche in senior care and have flourished as a devoted senior advocate. As a Community Relations Liaison, I have gained considerable experience working with those struggling with dementia and other medical conditions. As a Client Care Manager, I facilitate a smooth transition for clients being discharged from a hospital or rehab setting, working closely with the client’s medical team, family members and support team to ensure a safe, seamless return home. 
I am a Certified Dementia Specialist and a volunteer with the Alzheimer’s Association, facilitating monthly Alzheimer’s Support Groups in South Jersey, and provide one-on-one training and support to families of those struggling with dementia.

2 thoughts on “Are the Holidays Really Happy?

  1. Eileen nyzio

    Wendy what a great article and wonderful career choice. I remember when my dad was diagnosed I was frantic searching for anything to read that would help us help him. My dad was diagnosed in 1995 and died in 2002 I recall he did seem very agitated during the holidays because he was very quiet and gentle most of the time. Thank you for the great work you do

    • Wendy E. Pester

      Thank you, Eileen. I’m sorry for your loss, and am curious how “young” your father was when he passed. Often, the younger one is when diagnosed, the faster the disease progresses. And, yes, ”frantic” is exactly how many family caregivers feel when struggling to not only understand and accept the behaviors associated with dementia, but manage the behaviors without having to over medicate their loved one. It is so very rewarding to be able to share Validation, Therapeutic Fibbing and Redirection techniques with families and see the expression of relief on their faces. I so appreciate your comments and kind words, and wish you well.


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